On Monday evening, Washington’s Fox 5 reported that Rod Wheeler, an investigator hired by Seth Rich’s family, said that there is evidence that the DNC staffer was working with WikiLeaks before he was murdered last July.
Here are some of the stranger aspects about the story:
The family rejects the report. Through their spokesperson, they said: “As we’ve seen through the past year of unsubstantiated claims, we see no facts, we have seen no evidence, we have been approached with no emails and only learned about this when contacted by the press.”
The police say it’s bogus: “The assertions put forward by Mr. Wheeler are unfounded,” DC’s police department says in a statement. “The Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) Homicide Branch is actively investigating Mr. Rich’s murder and we continue to work with the family to bring closure to this case as we do with all homicide investigations.”
The family says they didn’t hire Wheeler. Fox 5 reported that Wheeler was hired by the Rich family. In their statement, the Rich family said Wheeler had been hired through a third party. Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist who has worked with the Rich family and is offering a $105,000 reward for information leading to the killer, told Washingtonian he is not the third party who hired Wheeler.
They also say Wheeler was not supposed to speak with the press. “The services of the private investigator who spoke to press was offered to the Rich family and paid for by a third party, and contractually was barred from speaking to press or anyone outside of law enforcement or the family unless explicitly authorized by the family,” they said in their statement.
Ed Butowsky, a Dallas-based financial adviser who has written for Breitbart, urged the family to hire a private investigator. NBC News reported that Butowsky, who also contributes to Fox News, offered to cover the costs as well. Regarding Wheeler, Butowsky told NBC News: “I didn’t pay anybody. I didn’t hire anybody.” Butowsky declined to tell NBC News whether he has had any contact with the Rich family.
The report said there’s no evidence Seth’s murder was a botched robbery. At the time, however, there had been a series of armed robberies in the area and the wristband on Seth’s watch was damaged–suggesting that there had been an altercation. Aaron also told Washingtonian earlier this year that there was bruising on Seth’s hand and legs to support the police’s theory that the murder was a botched robbery. “I think they pretty quickly ruled out any association to his work,” he said.
Fox News also reported that the FBI had conducted a forensic report of Rich’s computer shortly after his death. A bureau spokesperson tells Washingtonian it is referring all inquiries on Rich to the DC Police because it is not the FBI’s case. According to NBC News, a former law enforcement with first-hand knowledge of the case says: “[Rich’s laptop] never contained any e-mails related to WikiLeaks, and the FBI never had it.” A current FBI official also told NBC News that the MPD never handed over Rich’s laptop to the FBI.
It’s unclear which computer Wheeler was talking about. Wheeler told Fox 5: “I believe that the answer to solving his death lies on that computer, which I believe is either at the police department or either at the FBI. I have been told both.” In a conversation earlier this year, Seth’s brother Aaron Rich told Washingtonian that Seth’s personal laptop has never left his possession.
Wheeler is a longtime Fox News contributor as well as a private investigator. He previously worked as a DC homicide detective.
He once claimed in a news report that lesbian gangs armed with pink pistols were raping and terrorizing people across the United States and that the DC area had more than 150 of such gangs. Asked for evidence of this claim, which he shared on Bill O’Reilly’s show in 2007, Wheeler was “unable, in several phone and E-mail exchanges over a two-day period, to specify a single law enforcement agency or officer, police report, media account or any other source he relied upon for his D.C. area lesbian gangs claim,” the Southern Poverty Law Center reported. “But he insisted that his report was accurate and that any law enforcement officer who disagrees is ‘out of touch.'”
The reporter on Fox 5’s story has a disputed history with regard to media ethics. Last February, officials in Prince George’s County said Marina Marraco and a Fox 5 photographer misrepresented themselves to gain access to a jailed man who later pleaded guilty to child pornography charges. Fox 5 said at the time that it stood by the story and Marraco’s reporting process.
The story has captivated right-wing media at the precise moment President Trump is accused of sharing highly classified intelligence with Russian officials. Both Fox News and Breitbart News’s websites led with the Seth Rich story Tuesday morning. On Twitter, #SethRich was a trending topic with over 250,000 tweets. The Reddit forum “The_Donald” was absolutely on fire with posts about Seth Rich.
This is not the first time the Rich family has been blindsided by conspiracy theories. In February, Burkman told the Daily Mail he had a source claiming that Seth Rich had been killed as a result of “Russian involvement.” A member of the Rich family told DCist it was like “having a semi come up and t-bone you in the intersection when you think you’re doing fine. It catches you so off guard that you don’t just pause, you step backwards.”
Burkman has also planned a live reenactment of Rich’s murder. The lobbyist has said that the reenactment will take place at the scene of the crime and feature six to ten actors. It has not yet occurred.
Rich’s death has been the subject of outlandish conspiracy theories from the outset. Two days after Rich was killed, a “staunch supporter of Senator Sanders” on Reddit combed through Rich’s LinkedIn profile to build an elaborate 1,400-word case claiming Rich may have been on the verge of exposing election fraud perpetrated by the Clintons.
Below is the family’s full statement.
“As we’ve seen through the past year of unsubstantiated claims, we see no facts, we have seen no evidence, we have been approached with no emails and only learned about this when contacted by the press. Even if tomorrow, an email was found, it is not a high enough bar of evidence to prove any interactions as emails can be altered and we’ve seen that those interested in pushing conspiracies will stop at nothing to do so. We are a family who is committed to facts, not fake evidence that surfaces every few months to fill the void and distract law enforcement and the general public from finding Seth’s murderers. The services of the private investigator who spoke to press was offered to the Rich family and paid for by a third party, and contractually was barred from speaking to press or anyone outside of law enforcement or the family unless explicitly authorized by the family.”